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S & H Concert Review

Anderson, Ravel and Berlioz, Lars Vogt (pf), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 6th February 2003 (CT)


Last year I reviewed a performance of Julian Anderson’s Imagin’d Corners, his first completed work for the CBSO during his tenure as composer in association and a work that the CBSO subsequently took on tour to considerable acclaim, including the 2002 Proms. The Crazed Moon pre-dates Imagin’d Corners by some four years and takes its title from W. B. Yeats, "the moon, crazed through much childbirth/ staggering through the sky". Although very different in character and structure both works share a common opening feature, namely the use of off stage instruments, in Imagin’d Corners the concertante horn group and in The Crazed Moon three trumpets whose distant fanfares emphasise the notes G and E flat, pitches that have an anchoring function throughout the piece. Anderson is a master at drawing the listener into his sound world as is the case here, the predominantly sombre mood of the work stemming from its dedication to a composer friend, Graeme Smith, who died suddenly at the premature age of twenty four and unfolding through its early stages before the material becomes more disjointed but always underpinned by the opening pitches of G and E flat. It would be difficult not to be convinced by Oramo’s committed and persuasive reading of the work although it was Imagin’d Corners that made the more striking impression on me at a first hearing.

Lars Vogt was a sparkling soloist from the opening bars of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, aided by fine individual contributions from the orchestra (particular praise here for principal trumpet Jonathan Holland). Oramo seemed determined to bring out every contrast of the grotesque and the comic in Ravel’s typically brilliant orchestration whilst Vogt’s strikingly clear articulation ensured that there was no detail unheard in the solo part. The central Adagio assai was no less captivating, Vogt enthralling with playing of real delicacy aided by the crystal clear acoustic of the hall. If a couple of the solo orchestral entries in the final Presto could have been a little more sharply characterised the mood as a whole was finely captured in the breathless dash to the conclusion.

Interestingly I found myself jotting "Rattlesque" in my notebook on a couple of occasions during the performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique that occupied the second half of the concert. Conducting without a score Oramo certainly showed the odd gestural similarity to his predecessor but more importantly attacked the music with an enthusiasm that grew more infectious as the performance progressed, showing a natural affinity for Berlioz’s idiosyncratic turn of phrase and melody and clearly seeking to draw to the listener’s attention every dynamic and textural contrast in the composer’s imaginative scoring. If there was a disappointment it was in March to the Scaffold, highly effective, promising and finely played in the stopped horns at the opening but somehow failing to ignite in the blazing march itself. Elsewhere the strings managed to combine supreme elegance with playing of extrovert confidence in the Rêveries and Passions of the opening movement whilst the sense of expectant mystery at the opening of Un bal was palpable. The beautifully evoked summer evening in the country that followed again allowed the strings to shine, although not without a telling contribution from oboe and cor anglais at the opening and it was the woodwind possibly more so than the brass that made the final Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat so memorable, the air thick with menace in the Dies Irae with stunning playing vividly evoking Berlioz’s wailing and stamping ghosts and ghouls. Edge of the seat stuff and a performance that both orchestra and conductor clearly enjoyed as much as the audience.

Christopher Thomas.





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